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Sharmila Rudrappa, Director BUR 480, Mailcode A2200, Austin, TX 78712 • 512-232-6427

Joe Sing, Francisca Moreno broke barriers in early 20th-century Austin.

By Juan Castillo, AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

Posted: August 10, 2010
Esther Chung, APA Neighborhood Liaison of the Austin History Center.

Esther Chung, APA Neighborhood Liaison of the Austin History Center.

They could write chapters in history books about people like Joe Sing, a Chinese immigrant who blazed trails in Austin around the dawn of the 20th century, and his lay-down-the-law wife, Francisca, who helped him. Sing eclipsed one barrier after another poverty, a strange land and language, discriminatory laws to succeed as a businessman, husband and father.

But Sing apparently also was a modest man, and his gritty story went with him to his grave in 1927. There it probably would have stayed had his descendants not discovered a box 80 years after his death.

"A magic box," Terry Aguallo, Joe and Francisca's great-granddaughter, says with hints of wonder and gratitude.

The story of Joe Sing and Francisca Moreno Sing is the subject of a flurry of attention — a new state historical marker, a featured spot in an Austin History Center exhibit on pioneer Chinese immigrants and a recent student documentary, part of the East Austin Stories film project at the University of Texas.

It begins sometime in the late 1800s, when Joe Sing left his family and his homeland in search of the proverbial better life in the United States.

Sing found it in Austin, where he soon bridged Anglo, Asian and Mexican American worlds. One of the city's first Chinese residents, Sing married Francisca, an American of Mexican descent who cooked for Gov. Ma Ferguson and who, like her husband, did not lack for resolve. Together they opened the Hong Lee Laundry, which flourished by catering to bankers, legislators and white-collar workers on Congress Avenue. The couple had four children and apparently enjoyed a loving marriage. Sing never became a U.S. citizen, however — the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 forbade it — and under another law, Moreno, without realizing it, forfeited her citizenship simply by marrying Sing.

But, perhaps because the Sing-Moreno story was not passed down in the detail it might have deserved, their descendants never really made too much of their family heritage, their ancestors' pioneering spirit or their own melting-pot mix of heritages. American. Chinese. Mexican.

Never made much, that is, until that day in 2007 when, in the historical East Austin home of Margaret Sing, the late daughter of Joe and Francisca, they stumbled upon a box they hadn't known existed. About 3 feet long and 2 feet deep, the cardboard box contained personal effects more than 100 years old that belonged to Joe and Francisca. The contents awakened family members' curiosity about their ancestry, stoked their pride and their introspection and moved them to tears. The items revealed, too, a family secret. They told a story of family — a story long stored away and now reclaimed.

Lost culture

In the 1970s, schoolmates taunted Anna Aguallo, Terry's younger sister. They called her Chinese and pulled up the skin at the corners of their eyes, recalled her mother, Mary Frances Aguallo, a blunt-talking woman with a sassy sense of humor and at 79 the oldest living descendant of Sing and Moreno.

"When I was younger, my eyes were quite slanted, and I definitely looked different," said Anna, 40, a special education coordinator with the Austin school district. "The teasing made me feel like an outcast."

Anna and Terry knew that their great-grandfather was Chinese. They had seen Joe Sing's portrait, taken when he was probably in his 60s — Sing, with a shock of black hair flecked with gray, his back straight, staring solemnly at the camera. When they were kids, Sing's son, Joe Jr., made it a point to remind the girls of their Chinese heritage, too, "not just Mexican," said Anna, who added that her great-uncle used his father's abacus in his bookkeeping at home.

But that's as far as it went, Anna said. Joe Jr. didn't speak Chinese, and with no exposure to the language, customs or other Chinese relatives — no family ever followed Joe Sing to America — the Aguallo sisters celebrated Mexican traditions far more. Perhaps the only exceptions were the steamed white rice and other Chinese food they ate every day.

Their mother never met Joe Sing, who died at 67 in a hit-and-run accident. Yet Mary Frances says she felt as if she knew Sing anyway because her grandmother, a disciplinarian who raised her and impressed her with her work ethic and devotion to God, constantly talked about him. "He must have been a very, very good father, parent or husband," Mary Frances said. "By talking about him, she kept him alive."

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